Phnom Penh: Along pristine Cambodian beaches, past parades of elephants in its largest national park, sits an area half the size of Singapore that is raising alarm bells among military strategists in the US and beyond.
Dara Sakor, a US$3.8bil (RM16bil) China-backed investment zone encompassing 20% of Cambodia’s coastline, is unlike any other in the developing South-East Asian nation.
Controlled by a Chinese company with a 99-year lease, it features plans for an international airport, a deep-water port and industrial park along with a luxury resort complete with power stations, water treatment plants and medical facilities.
The size and scope of the plans for Dara Sakor have fanned US concerns the resort could be part of a larger Chinese plan to base military assets in Cambodia, according to an official familiar with the situation.
A naval presence there would further expand China’s strategic footprint into South-East Asia, consolidating its hold over disputed territory in the South China Sea and waterways that carry trillions of dollars of trade.
It’s not the first time China’s presence in Cambodia has raised alarms with the Trump administration.
Vice President Mike Pence last year wrote a letter to Prime Minister Hun Sen expressing fears that Cambodia might be planning to host Chinese equipment at another nearby location, the Ream Naval Base, which officials in Phnom Penh have repeatedly denied.
More broadly, the US suspects that President Xi Jinping’s signature Belt and Road Initiative to build ports and other strategic infrastructure in places such as Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Myanmar will pave the way for China to set up more military bases overseas after establishing its first one in Djibouti two years ago. Cambodia, which gets three-quarters of its investment from China, has increasingly been Beijing’s most reliable partner in South-East Asia.
“If you have a naval base in Cambodia it means the Chinese navy has a more favourable operational environment in South-East Asian waters,” said Charles Edel, a former State Department official who is now a senior fellow at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.
“You have all of a sudden mainland South-East Asia potentially sitting behind a defensive Chinese military perimetre. This is by far the biggest implication and one that would likely have political effects.” — Bloomberg